My critique partner Juliette wrote a post today on following the rules of writing, and while we were talking about it this morning, it led to a discussion about the rules of story. I thought it would make a fun companion piece to hers, so here we go.
I'm a big fan of the story. If I had to chose between a great story and great writing, I'd take story every time. Because without a great story, who cares about the writing? I've seen wonderfully written manuals, but that didn't make me want to curl up with them in front of a fire.
I've gotten myself into some debates over which is more important to a new writer. Should they focus on improving their writing or their story? To dip into Juliette's post a bit, I think that knowing the rules is important. Writing is a skill, and there's only so far you can go with raw talent. At some point, you'll need to know what you're doing. But I also think that no matter how good a writer you are, if you're not a storyteller, you won't go that far either. Most people don't pick up a book because the author is technically skilled. They pick it up because it sounds like a good story.
So, provided you have the technical skills (after all, writing so bad that a reader can't follow it will kill even a great story), what does a great story have to do? Once they have those technical skills, what rules does a writer need to follow?
1. Hook the reader
2. Entertain them until the story is over
That's it. Seriously. It sounds so easy, but this is probably the number-one reason most well-written books fail. It's why my early novels failed to get me an agent or sell to a publisher. It's probably why a lot of trunk novels are still trunk novels.
But let's look a little closer at these rules.
Hooking the Reader
You'll find a ton of information on how to do this out there. But basically, you hook a reader by offering them something that makes them curious enough to keep reading. You make them care. They want to know more, see what happens, spend more time with this character, see what develops in this world, explore this premise some more. All are ways in which you can hook a reader. For every "you must" rule, someone can (and often does) show you an exception to that rule and uses it as proof that the rule is wrong.The rule probably isn't wrong, there are just so many ways to do something that one rule can't cover it all.
Now, there are some ways that consistently work.
1. Introduce an interesting character with a problem.
This probably sums up a vast majority of novels out there. Someone with a problem. The book follows that person until the problem is solved. The readers cares about both the character and the problem.
2. Introduce a compelling situation.
Some topics are fascinating, and we don't care all that much about the characters at first. We want to see more about this cool idea. But as soon as the shine is off the apple, we want a story to go with that cool idea. The reader cares about the idea.
3. Introduce an intriguing character with a unique perspective.
You'll also hear "start with a great voice" but it's kinda the same thing. The person telling the story is so charismatic that you'll hang with them for a bit to see what they do. The reader cares about the character.
No matter how you hook your reader, the next rule is the really hard one.
Entertaining Your Reader to the End of the Story
This entire blog is devoted to doing that. There's no formula (though there is a reliable structure that works well), no one way, no plug and play outline. You just keep offering something the reader finds interesting and keep them wanting more. How you do that is up to you.
There are some consistently helpful ways for this as well.
1. Give the story goals worth striving for.
Create a carrot to encourage the reader to keep reading. Even in books that are about a time in someone's life, and don't have a big story goal, there are still things they're trying to do. Stories aren't about people watching.
2. Give the story stakes that matter.
Something is making us want to see what happens next. The whole reason we want to see the outcome of the goal is because of the consequences of that resolution. High stakes, low stakes, end of the world or quiet and reflective, as long as we want to see how it turns out, we'll keep reading.
3. Give the story a character worth following.
Stories are about people. Even in hard sci fi where the science is at the core, it's the people who are driving that scientific exploration. That science has human repercussions that make us curious. (otherwise we'd just read a scientific paper on the subject) Make the character someone that intrigues. They don't have to be good or even likable if there's something about them that makes us want to know more. They just have to capture our attention and curiosity.
Again, it comes down to making the reader care. If they care, they'll keep reading. If they don't, they'll stop.
If you focus on telling a great story, you'll stand a better chance at creating a great story. Because you'll have something that makes us care, and a reason to keep turning those pages.